Spotlight on Turmeric

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A basket of fresh turmeric, surrounded by fresh ginger and coconut at an outdoor market in Ho Chih Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
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Turmeric is one of the most popular herbs in ancient Indian medicine (Ayurveda) and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
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Healthy Turmeric Recipes:

Roasted Onions
Ras Al Hanout
Green Beans with Turmeric Glaze

An ancient spice with the air of exotic intrigue, turmeric has enamored cooks and herbalists all over the world for years. In its native homes of India and China, it has long been used as a cooking spice and medicine. In the United States, it is known for giving mustard its yellow color. And recently, it also is being touted in the Western media for its many health benefits.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), a flowering plant in the ginger family, grows 3 to 5 feet high in the tropical regions of southern Asia. The spice is made from drying the plant’s root and grinding it into a fine powder. In Ayurveda (Indian medicine) and Traditional Chinese Medicine, practitioners historically have prescribed the spice to reduce inflammation and joint problems; treat digestive disorders and liver problems; treat skin diseases; and improve wound healing.

Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, an Ayurvedic practitioner who also is a nutritionist and national officer in the American Herbalists Guild, points out that curries were originally created as a tasty way to offer medicinal herbs. The dishes had five to 10 ingredients with healing benefits, and turmeric often was one of those ingredients.

“It’s thought in Ayurveda that cooking turmeric activates its medicinal properties and it’s usually suggested to use the herb cooked,” Khalsa says. Turmeric also can be taken as a supplement (usually the ingredient curcumin is isolated in supplements).

Turmeric’s Rich Medicinal History

Turmeric is a good herb to support the digestive system, Khalsa says. It is warming for the digestive tract and increases secretions. Its astringent qualities enable the herb to tighten up the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, which prevents “leaky gut” and treats the inflammation in diverticulitis. In addition, it contains a small amount of essential oils that are carminative (anti-gas). Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and astringent effects also make it helpful for treating ulcers. The astringent effects tighten the surface of ulceration, are hemostatic (stop bleeding) and protect the ulcer surface from further tissue damage and fluid loss.

“It’s also a stupendous liver herb,” Khalsa says. “It has a general benefit across the board for the liver.” It detoxifies the liver and protects it from damage. It increases secretion of bile, and is used for gallstones and gallbladder stasis.

In Asia, turmeric is used topically as well as internally. It often is found in acne creams or poultices for inflammatory injuries. It also is used to reduce inflammation in the mouth and to heal gums. Asians traditionally have used turmeric as a beauty treatment that tightens skin and reduces inflammation. To try it, apply it like a lotion, massage into the skin, then rinse off in a bath. Because of its astringency, turmeric also can be applied as a poultice (or taken internally) to reduce hemorrhoids, Khalsa says.

In using herbs to treat various disorders, an Ayurvedic practitioner considers the constitution of the individual. Ayurvedic practitioners believe all people are some combination of three basic types of metabolic forces, or doshas. “Turmeric is almost tridoshic,” Khalsa says, meaning it is useful for people of all constitutional types as defined in Ayurveda. Believed to govern all bodily processes, the doshas are called vata, pitta and kapha. (Ayurvedic practitioners and books can help you determine your dosha. Many internet resources, such as, also are available.) Vata is related to the element of air or space; pitta is the fire element; and kapha is related to water and earth. Most people have one or two dominant doshas, which can get out of balance. Spices with warming properties, for example, could cause irritability or other issues for particular individuals. Although turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory in the short term, which is a cooling action, in the long term it is warming and drying.

“Turmeric usually is considered to be slightly increasing for pitta and slightly reducing for kapha and vata,” Khalsa says. Because turmeric acts as a warming remedy in the long term, it only should be used short term (three or four days) for pitta conditions (warm conditions, such as inflammation). “It’s just not a good herb to use in excess over long periods of time, like years, for a pitta person,” Khalsa says. And turmeric can be drying for someone with a vata constitution. On the other hand, a person with kapha constitution can take turmeric as a supplement long term.

“Where it really stands out is for joint conditions,” Khalsa says, “either in modest doses over time for joint rebuilding and rejuvenation, or as a short-term anti-inflammatory for acute injuries. People who have joint difficulties often have a vata constitution, and turmeric can be used as long as the dryness and astringent issue is offset by using almond oil, ghee or marshmallow root for lubrication.”

Tradition Backed by Science

The results of scientific studies on turmeric, as reported by the media, are the driving factor sending Americans in search of curcumin supplements. A search for turmeric on PubMed, the database of the National Institutes of Health, produces a list of 1,300 studies. Most of these studies have been done on animals to understand the medicinal properties of curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. These studies show that curcumin provides a protective effect on the liver, has anti-tumor action, reduces inflammation and fights infection. The recommended dose is 1 gram daily for maintenance, and up to 30 grams for acute inflammation.

Christine Horner, a physician/surgeon based in Taos, New Mexico, and author of Waking the Warrior Goddess (Basic Health, 2005), incorporates a natural and Ayurvedic approach into her work as a health coach. She recommends turmeric supplements for everyone. According to Horner, “It has unbelievable health-promoting qualities, including being a COX-2 anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.”

Horner says research has shown that in most chronic disorders, from arthritis to Alzheimer’s to heart disease and cancer, inflammation is a contributing factor. “If you take a COX-2 anti-inflammatory, which is an enzyme involved in inflammation, it helps to diminish the risk of virtually every chronic disorder,” she says.

Horner writes and educates extensively about turmeric and breast cancer. She says the herb can block breast cancer-causing toxins, such as DDT and chlordane, which mimic the estrogen molecule in our body (too much estrogen has been found to be the primary cause of breast cancer). Turmeric can reduce the estrogenic effect of these pesticides and help block them from attaching to the estrogen receptors in the breast. In addition, turmeric “down regulates” the estrogen receptor so the response isn’t as great, and breast cells don’t divide as rapidly as they normally would. It also inhibits or blocks the COX-2 enzyme, which has been found to play a key role in the initiation and progression of some cancers. The enzyme causes cells to divide, prevents tumor cell death, stimulates the growth of new vessels into the tumor and has many other dangerous effects.

In fact, a substantial amount of the research on turmeric has focused on its anti-cancer potential. Studies suggest curcumin has potential in the treatment of various forms of cancer, including prostate, breast, skin and colon. In addition, animal studies show that turmeric can protect the liver from a number of damaging substances, such as carbon tetrachloride and acetaminophen, partly by helping clear toxins from the body and by protecting the liver from damage.

Turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effects make it a good choice for skin conditions that involve inflammation, such as psoriasis, as well as for arthritis, Horner says. Scientific studies, including one from the University of Arizona, Tucson, in 2006, validate the effects of turmeric for preventing joint inflammation.

Another aspect of turmeric’s healing properties is the antibiotic quality of its oil, which can help prevent bacterial infection in wounds. Laboratory studies also suggest that curcuminoids may reduce the destructive activity of parasites or roundworms.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website, early studies on animals suggest that turmeric might prove helpful in preventing the buildup of atherosclerosis (blockage of arteries that can eventually cause a heart attack or stroke) in one of two ways. An extract of the spice lowered cholesterol levels and inhibited the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which prevents LDL from depositing in the walls of blood vessels and contributing to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque. Turmeric also might prevent platelet buildup along the walls of injured blood vessels. Such buildup can cause blood clots to form and arteries to block.

Some Turmeric Cautions

The University of Maryland website notes that turmeric, taken in medicinal doses, might increase blood-thinning effects and therefore increase risk of bleeding from drugs, such as warfarin and aspirin. The site recommends consulting your physician if you have conditions requiring you to take these medications. (The herb still is safe to use as a culinary spice.)

From ancient India to modern Western science and medicine, turmeric seems to stand out for its range of benefits. “There’s one fun fact about turmeric that I like to tell people,” Horner says, “and that is that it has its own intelligence. If turmeric is given to someone with cancer, it will shut off the blood supply to the tumor, but if you put it on a wound, it stimulates the growth of blood vessels to accelerate healing. So it knows the difference between wound tissue and tumor tissue, and it has the opposite effect on each.”

Cooking with Turmeric

The main medicinal compounds in turmeric are antioxidant molecules called curcuminoids. But cooking easily destroys these fragile molecules. The following recipes are designed to retain the best of both taste and health benefits from this ancient spice.

Turmeric Tips

• Protect it from the elements. Store turmeric in a dark, cool place, away from light. A foil-wrapped, tightly capped bottle stored in the refrigerator is ideal.

• Stabilize it with acids. When possible, use turmeric in acid-containing recipes, such as salad dressing and tomato-based dishes. Or add a little vinegar or lemon juice to stews or vegetables, just enough to lend a faint, pleasing tartness that will stabilize the curcumin, as well.


Frontier Natural Products Co-op
(800) 669-3275

Herb Pharm
(800) 348-4372

Monterey Bay Spice Company
(800) 500-6148

Mountain Rose Herbs
(800) 879-3337

Natural Factors
(800) 322-8704

San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Co.
(800) 227-2830

Lynda McCullough is a freelance writer and yoga teacher living in Loveland, Colorado.

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